A: Astrid Lindgren – the grande dame of Swedish children’s literature and the author of Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Långstrump), The Brothers Lionheart (Bröderna Lejonhjärta) and Karlsson-on-the-Roof (Karlsson på taket), among many, many more. How many have you read?
B: Barnkalas – because children’s birthday parties can fill up a family weekend like nobody’s business. And the highlight of the Swedish barnkalas has to be the fiskdamm, where a parent hides behind a curtain and clips a goodie bag onto a fishing line under extreme pressure and amidst much shouting and squealing from hyped children. For tips on managing a calm and organised barnkalas, check out Pati’s blog.
C: Coffee – the lifeblood of this country. The Swedes take their coffee seriously, consuming more than 8kg of the stuff each year per capita. Aside from chains such as Espresso House, Waynes and Coffeehouse by George, there are myriad wonderful little coffee shop out there to explore for coffee snobs and double mocha lovers alike.
D: Dalarnahäst – you know, those wooden horses that every Swedish home seems to have? Carved from wood, typically painted red and decorated with flowers, in a style called kurbits, these horses originated around Mora in Dalarna. But did you know that you can also find dalarnahäst in the US? The horse was introduced to the country at the 1939 World Fair in New York, and you can now find large horses in Chicago, California, North Dakota, and of course in Minnesota, including one in a town there that just happens to be called Mora.
E: Eurovision is truly a national obsession, along with Melodifestivalen, the annual contest to choose the country’s Eurovision contribution. It’s camp, it’s silly, it’s such good fun. It’s best to operate a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” policy, even if it’s not your thing. Otherwise your Saturday nights from February to May are going to be long.
F: Fika. It has to be fika, doesn’t it? If coffee is Sweden’s lifeblood, then fikabröd is its sustenance. You can have coffee without fikabröd, but why would you want to, when there are such delicious cinnamon or cardamom buns to gobble up? Fika is also where all the major decisions are made in an office. You thought that happened at meetings? Oh no, a meeting is just the kick-off. Actual decisions are made afterwards, around the fika table, when everyone has a mug in one hand and a bun in the other. (Of course, a decision is only ever reached once complete consensus has been achieved.)
G: Godis (sweets/candy) is not just for children. Come early Friday evening, you’ll be fighting for space at the pick ‘n’ mix as the entire country gets ready to load up on godis for fredagsmys (cozy Friday). (Also, lördagsmys, which appears to be the same but enjoyed on a Saturday.)
H: Healthcare, which is charged at a nominal fee (typically 100-300kr for a standard visit to the doctor) and capped at 1,100kr over 12 months, if you are registered and have a personnummer (see P: Personnummer). If you don’t have a personnummer, then expect to pay more (fees can vary), but this can be claimed back if you are registered in another EU country. You can find out more about healthcare in Sweden here.
I: IKEA, of course. The flatpack furniture behemoth you’d be forgiven for thinking was known across the planet. But did you know that actually only 21 countries have discovered the joy of a weekend spent eating meatballs and buying tealights? Sweden is where it all started, back with a mail order business in 1943 and a first store in 1958.
J: Jantelagen – the concept of not thinking you are better, smarter, or more important than anyone else. First written about by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose, Jantelagen has been accused of stifling individuality and ambition in Scandinavia. In other words, the Nordic version of tall poppy syndrome.
K: Köttbullar, or meatballs – an integral part of the national cuisine. Meatballs, cream sauce, potatoes (usually mashed), peas and of course lingonberries. Modern, traditional, vegetarian, vegan, it seems there is no end to the ways in which you can get your meatballs. (See also I: IKEA, where a large portion will set you back only 59kr.)
L: Lagom, a concept with strong ties to Jantelagen. If something is “lagom” it is sufficient and just the right amount. In other words, the opposite of the excesses you see on a Saturday night in central Stockholm.
M: Midsummer – like meatballs, Midsummer is an essential part of Swedish life. Dancing around the midsummer pole pretending to be a frog. Drinking snaps and eating herring with new potatoes. Gorging yourself on fresh strawberries. And, most of all, enjoying all that light. The longest day marks the time to get your vitamin D count up before the long, dark winter starts (see W: Winter).
N: Nyheterna – the news on tv is a great way to learn new words in Swedish. Turn on text tv subtitles and get the Swedish words on screen to learn. Not only does this help to grow your Swedish vocabulary but it also arms you with current affairs knowledge with which to impress Swedes at fika (see F: Fika).
O: Ombudsman – as common a word in the English language as in Sweden. Did you know that’s because it’s a Swedish concept originally? And it makes sense, of course, that the ombudsman – representing the rights and point of view of the person on the street – would have been born here in the land of consensus.
P: Personnummer – the digits that make the Swedish world go round and the holy grail for new arrivals to the country. A personnummer is needed to open a bank account, get a mobile phone contract, take books out of the library, receive subsidised healthcare, in fact most things in Swedish life.
Q: Queuing, which you could be forgiven for thinking is the national sport. Every institution you enter, be it a government agency, a post office, a bank or even just a bakery, will have a queuing system ruled and regulated by the nummerlapp (queue ticket). And if there is not, you’ll need to have your wits about you and your elbows sharpened, because there will be someone who tries to push in front of you.
R: Röda dagar, or red days are the glorious public holidays that Sweden enjoys. There are quite a lot of them and, even better, most of them fall in the late spring, when the days are getting longer and the weather
is should be getting better.
S: Systembolaget – the place where you will spend much of your queuing time, especially if you visit at 2.30pm on a Saturday, just before it closes for the weekend. The sale of drinks with an alcohol content over 3.5% is restricted to these government stores, but luckily many of them have come along way since the days of all the bottles being stored behind the counter.
T: Time. You might ask me why time is on this list, but it is because being on time is essential in Sweden. If you are invited to a party at 8pm, you get there and press on the doorbell at 8pm exactly. There is no such thing as fashionably late here. Punctuality is key. But, whatever you do, don’t arrive at 7.45pm and ring on the doorbell then. No, you should wait those fifteen minutes out in the hallway so as not to upset or panic your host.
U: Utlänningar – what we all are: foreigners. Sweden doesn’t have a particularly long history of immigration (indeed, emigration was once far more common, with 1.3 million Swedes having left for the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries). We can be met with a vast array of reactions, both good and bad, and it can be hard to find your place in conformist Sweden. But the benefits can be many (see Y: Why?).
V: Vabruari – the curse of every parent. The month of February is so plagued by vinterkräksjuka and ‘flu and all manner of illnesses that it is known as Vabruari, as so many parents will have to VAB (vård av barn) and be at home to look after a sick child. Some people say that there is one day in January that is the most depressing of the year. Those people have not lived in Sweden with small children during February.
W: Winter – otherwise known as half of the year. A Swedish winter can begin any time from October and extend until the end of April. In the 11 years I’ve lived here, I seen it snow on the 1 May public holiday three times. At the start of May. That’s just not right. Snow aside, often one of the hardest things for newcomers to Sweden to get used to is the darkness of the winter. This really is a country where daylight savings time makes a difference. Come October each year, the shelves will be bare of light lamps, which are said to help banish the winter blues.
X: Extra layers. The Swedes have a saying: “There’s no such things as bad weather, only bad clothes”. So make sure that you have your thermals and your proper winter coat and boots for when winter hits. These really are worth their weight in gold.
Y: Why? The question that we find ourselves asking when the winter wind blows especially hard, the nights are at their darkest, or we’ve had a particularly trying day, struggling with the Swedish language and Swedish culture. But at the end of the day, we can comfort ourselves with the positive aspects of life here. Amazing childcare opportunities (including 480 days of parental leave shared between parents and preschool from the age of one), subsidised healthcare, the long, light summer nights, and last but not least, fikabröd!
Z: Z, which isn’t the last letter of the Swedish alphabet, because it is followed by Å, then Ä and finally Ö. (And also because can you think of any good Swedish word that begins with “z”?!)